In addition to my normal devotional series, I want to start adding some reflections on texts appropriate to the themes facing us in our fast-changing times. This is the first of a series of such reflections.
I am writing on the heels of an amazing conference here in my new home of Durham, NC. Duke University Divinity School sponsored a gathering called “Loving Your Neighbor”, a conference about involvement in the Sanctuary movement.
The Sanctuary movement is a faith-based movement where communities of faith such as churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, are set aside as “safe spaces” for immigrants, refugees, and folks seeking asylum of all sorts, including those who are undocumented. The event was planned before the swearing in of Republican President Donald Trump but seemed prophetically timed, as it occurred just immediately following his making executive orders and memorandums targeted at immigrants and refugees.
In fact, according to news reports, at the same time the conference was going on, individuals in route to the US were stopped at airports and told essentially “America is closed. Go home”. This included people who previously had been given a legal “thumbs up” from the government to come as visitors, as refugees, and even some who already had green cards to stay in the country.
During the conference, most of the gathering was looking at the questions of what is the history of this movement, how are current events affecting the way we can follow this example to respond to the changing needs of immigrants and refugees in need in our communities & world, and discussions of practical steps each gathered could make.
One aspect of the conference that stood out to me was how much Scripture came up in our discussions about the issue of immigration and the refugee crisis. In ways that felt very much akin to the fundamentalist Christian upbringing of my childhood, texts were quoted in a black and white way, as if they are to be literally followed.
Here are a collection of such verses:
“Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
“God makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; God loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothes. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
“Long ago I gave these commands to my people: ‘You must see that justice is done, and must show kindness and mercy to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners who live among you, or anyone else in need.” (Zechariah 7:9)
“ I am the Lord, and I consider all people the same, whether they are Israelites or foreigners living among you.” (Numbers 15:16)
“ Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
As much happening in our political climate, this fact struck me as ironic. How is it that political and religious conservatives, who argue long and hard for the need to take the Bible literally about texts whose meaning is in dispute: such as texts alleged to be about gay people by some (and sexual assault by others), who argue that the miracles of Scripture must be understood literally, can at the same time comfortably overlook texts such as these? There is no dispute about the meaning of these texts among Biblical scholars: to be faithful people we are called to be ones who welcome immigrants, foreigners, and refugees in our midst.
The people of Scripture were immigrants, foreigners, and refugees. Their experience of God was one that came in large part out of the experience of exile, of slavery, of being victims of war and empire, yet finding through God’s presence in their lives resiliency and identity. When we fail to be welcoming to the immigrant, pilgrim, alien, stranger – whatever term for refugee or displaced person – in a true and profound we,
we are failing to recognize and embrace God as God is known in the formative experience of the founders of our faith.
This is not just true in the experience of the Jewish people who make up the Hebrew Scriptures some Christians call the “Old Testament”. It is true of the early Christians whom the writer of 1 Peter calls aliens and strangers in this world, and whom Matthew 25 warns that to fail to care for the stranger in our midst is to turn our back on Christ Himself.
Similarly that same theme emerges in the Quran, in which followers of Islam are warned that Allah takes the service done to others, or not done to others, as done or not done to Him.
Remembering displaced people, and responding with compassion not rejection to them, is a black and white issue in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Scriptures.
How is it that we can claim to be being faithful followers of the Bible – folks who say “God says it, we believe it, that settles it” – while embracing neglect for such people in our country?
In future posts, I want to share some themes from some texts and stories of displaced people in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament specifically. But I want to challenge all of us to consider how we can respond to this challenge today.
Also I want to share a song by “Brother Sun”, which reminds us this same story of being people whose experience and identity was forged by the stories of displaced people is also the heart of our American story as well, which we forget at our own peril:
Your progressive redneck preacher,